I knew Simone Biles was done when she said, “There’s more to life than gymnastics.” That is a true sentence. Maybe, under certain circumstances, a noble one. But it’s not something an athlete says in the middle of a competition — in the middle of the Olympic Games.
Biles, as a gymnast, has been judged her entire career. It won’t compare to how she’ll be judged now. The biggest, most hyped-up name in the Tokyo Games stepped aside after one vault in the team finals on Tuesday, leaving her teammates to carry the load. The next day she pulled out of the individual competition as well. The two biggest gold medals she could have captured were left on the shelf.
“The mental is not there,” Biles told the media. She has not been shy about this. She’s answered questions. She’s talked about the stress. She posted on social media that she felt “the weight of the world.” Never mind that many athletes from other countries are no doubt feeling the same thing and still competing. Biles made it her reason for pulling out. Publicly.
That was stunning, especially at the Olympic Games, where effort is sometimes more celebrated than results. Remember the injured British sprinter who was carried around the track by his father in the Barcelona Games? Or the Swiss marathoner who staggered to the finish in Los Angeles, refusing help from doctors despite wobbling like a leaf in the wind?
Biles didn’t do that. She didn’t push herself. Instead, she pushed back against the system. She said “Not today.”
She shocked the world. And I don’t care how many news reports are filed, how many experts are interviewed, or how many columns like this are written, none of us truly know what she was thinking.
When’s it OK to ‘quit’?
That doesn’t stop the guessing. Since her announcement, a bevy of sports psychologists — few if any, I imagine, ever met Biles — have been quoted in media reports on what she is going through, what it feels like, what are the causes. Social media, never a good barometer of anything, has enveloped Biles like a wounded bird, and is largely applauding her pullout, including feel-good celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres.
Few have criticized her publicly, but they will once more time passes. Piers Morgan already took her to task, saying, “Sorry if it offends the howling Twitter snowfake virtue-signalers, but I don’t think it’s remotely courageous, heroic, or inspiring to quit.”
Did Biles “quit”? Are people even allowed to use that word anymore? Did she just step away? Save herself from careless injury?
“At the end of the day, we’re human, too,” she told the media. ”We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”
It’s hard to argue with that sentence. It’s just weird to hear it at the Olympics — in a sport that is defined by Olympic performances. It’d be one thing if Tom Brady stepped away from Game 15 of the regular season, saying he was burned out or needed a break. It’d be another thing if he did it after the first snap of the Super Bowl.
Yes, it’s true that Biles has been hyped for this moment for two years. That’s heavy. It’s also true that she accepted rich lucrative sponsorships, created her own gymnastic clothing line, and willingly wears the GOAT (greatest of all time) label, including a rhinestone goat on her own leotards. She didn’t downplay all the accolades and hosannas in the articles and TV features leading up to Tokyo. She didn’t say “You’re overdoing it.” In explaining her pullout, she referred to herself as the Olympics “head star.”
A problem we helped create
But even those who think they are impervious often find out otherwise. Perhaps Biles just had that moment. Or she didn’t want to fail. Or hurt herself. Or be less than what people thought she should be.
Meanwhile, the media, so used to cheerleading for Simone they can’t shake the habit, have pretty much applauded her absence as courageous, leading the way, marking a new phase of “mental health” focus in sports.
Of course, few of those commenting will admit their own role in creating Biles’ dilemma. Broadcasters have been calling her the GOAT for years. Every profile casts her as “can’t miss,” even though she’d only been to one prior Olympics and won four golds.
It’s worth noting a Russian gymnast named Larisa Latynina went to three Olympics (1956, 1960, 1964) won gold in every one, finished with nine golds and 18 medals overall, second only to Michael Phelps in total, and more than any female Olympian to date.
You never hear her name, do you? Perhaps because she doesn’t fit the bill of who we Americans want our stars to be.
Sure, Biles can flip higher and twirl faster than Latynina did 50 years ago. But Carl Lewis ran faster and jumped farther than Jesse Owens. Did it cost Owens his stature? Of course not. Nadia Comaneci competed in three Olympics, won five golds and nine total medals. Gina Gogean won 30 medals between the Olympics, World and European championships.
Maybe we shouldn’t have been labeling someone the greatest of all time before she finished her journey — or reached her 25th birthday. Maybe the sponsors and the networks counting on Biles to deliver huge ratings and massive followers should have seen how large a boulder they were placing on the shoulders of a 4-foot-8 woman.
If the “weight of the world” is truly what forced Simone Biles to snap, then much of that world should examine its own behavior.
It won’t. We think of Biles as warranting this treatment because she’s special, and none of us can do what she does. But likewise, none of us can know what she’s feeling. To label it anything — brave, noble, heroic, sad, scared or disappointing — is simply not our place.
All we know is that she bowed out on the biggest stage, and the reason she gave was her frame of mind.
And the mind is a mysterious thing.
We know better, but still don’t know
I once wrote about a baseball player named Jim Eisenreich. He was a terrific rookie outfielder for the Minnesota Twins in the 1980s, who started to shake and contorted so badly that he had leave games. Many wrote about him having stage fright. Psychologists weighed in. Former players weighed in. I interviewed him and wrote a piece coming to the same conclusion. He couldn’t handle the pressure.
Later he was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome. When I saw him next, he was angry with me (and others) for having suggested he was afraid of the spotlight. I apologized and felt awful. I also learned right then you can’t judge an athlete’s mental frame of mind. You don’t know what’s going on inside.
Look at how one migraine headache shadowed Scottie Pippen’s career when he chose to sit out a Game 7 of the NBA conference finals. Or Steve Blass, who suddenly could no longer throw a baseball over the plate. Or golfers who developed the “yips” in their putting.
All these were likely mental health issues. But we weren’t so kind back then.
Maybe we will be now. Maybe we’re all smarter. Maybe it’s part of being more politically correct. A sports psychologist, asked about Biles, told the New York Times, “What a sigh of relief she must be experiencing, to be real, to say, ‘You know what? I’m not OK.’ ”
Well. She doesn’t look like someone sighing relief. If she’s the face of the Olympics, the face is grimacing. But who made her into that? We did. NBC did.
We trumpeted her story, including its saddest side, her reported sexual abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar. No one should have to go through that. Try walking around with the burden of being one of the most famous survivors of that awful scandal.
It’s true, Carl Lewis was once the face of an Olympics and lived up to the golden hype. Michael Phelps did the same. But Lewis mystified the media, and Phelps himself admitted depression.
Yes, you can argue soldiers scouring for land mines and surgeons trying not to snip a vital nerve have far more on their shoulders than an already-rich-and-famous athlete trying to win an event. Biles didn’t invent the weight of the world. She’s just the first to walk away from it at the ultimate moment.
Having said all this, she could come roaring back next week. That’s when the individual apparatus events are held. And she’s capable of grabbing gold in every one of them. But if she does, it will only raise more questions about why she was OK the second week but not the first. Why was she able to do one event at a time, but not all of them? Why was the individual thing OK, but the team thing wasn’t?
And then we’ll have more stories, more hype, more posting, more interviews. Whatever happens with Simone Biles, you can guarantee we will overdo it. That’s America at the Olympics. If you want to learn how an athlete’s mind gets overtaxed, begin there.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.